Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Betty the crow has the tools to prove she's the smartest of them all

Steve Conno,Science Editor
Friday 09 August 2002 00:00 BST

She may be a featherbrain but Betty the New Caledonian crow has achieved academic stardom by becoming the first animal other than man to show a basic understanding of cause and effect.

Scientists at Oxford University's Department of Zoology were astonished to find that Betty was able to make a hooked tool from garden wire and use it to fish out tasty morsels from a tube. She is even able to adapt her hooks if they are not up to the task. It is the first time that an animal has been shown to have such a sound knowledge of "folk physics", the scientists believe.

Many animals used tools in the wild, usually as an aid for eating, but no one had witnessed such finesse before, especially in an animal that had received no formal training, said Alex Kacelnik, professor of behavioural ecology and fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford. "She shows from the beginning that when she starts bending the wire it is as if she has a clear objective in mind, in some cases even correcting the angle of the hook if it is not right," he said. "Although many animals use tools, purposeful modification of objects to solve new problems, without training or prior experience, is virtually unknown."

Betty, who has spent two years in captivity after being born on the Pacific Island of New Caledonia, began making her hooks spontaneously from straight garden wire after an old male crow called Abel threw away the hook made for her by the researchers. Betty wedges the end of the wire into the base of the food tube and turns her head to form the hook.

In nine out of ten attempts at hook making, Betty was able to fish out a small bucket from the tube containing a piece of meat. Professor Kacelnik said that even chimpanzees had not shown such skills. He said: "Experiments with primates, who are much closer relatives of humans than birds, have failed to show any deliberate, specific tool-making and human-like understanding of basic physical laws."

It is not yet possible to assess whether Betty is a one-off genius or whether she represents theintellectual ability of crows. Abel does not make tools but waits for Betty to fish out the food before bullying her into giving him a piece. "It's a matter of judgement as to which is the cleverer strategy," Professor Kacelnik said.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in